The Reagan administration yesterday scrapped a controversial set of regulations the new president has cited as a symbol of federal meddling: rules requiring schools to teach non-English-speaking students in their native languages.


Education Secretary Terrel Bell said he would replace the bilingual requirement with new regulations giving local school systems more flexibility in deciding how best to educate students who cannot speak or read English. He said the federal government would still insist, though, that any school receiving federal funds — a category covering all public and some private schools — “provide equal educational opportunity for . . . children who face language barriers.”


The regulations Bell formally withdrew yesterday, proposed last August by his predecessor, Shirley Hufstedler, were in limbo anyway because Congress had blocked their implementation. But Bell’s decision will have substantive effect because it may permit some 500 large school systems — which have about 90 per cent of the students affected by the rules — to revise commitments they have already made to set up bilingual teaching programs.


“I don’t think we could change the regulations and rigidly bind those 500 school districts [to their promises],” Bell said.


The most common alternative to bilingual teaching of basic courses will presumably be special training in English for students who cannot understand English-language teaching and textbooks. Educators who support this method say it is cheaper for school systems and better for students in the long run because it forces them to learn the language most Americans use.


Those who supported the rules requiring bilingual training say that students who have to learn English before they can take basic courses fall far behind their age groups in school. Supporters also say that Washington has to enforce a particular remedy for the problem because, left to themselves, schools tend to ignore the minority of students who don’t speak English.


Bell’s decision seems to reflect the new administration’s oft-stated aversion to “prescriptive” regulations, in which the government directs how a particular result is to be achieved. Reagan’s economic advisers say they prefer “result-oriented” regulation, in which Washington described the desired result without prescribing the way to achieve it.


Bell emphasized this aspect of his decision in a statement yesterday. “I would like to use this regulation, symbolic of many of the ills that have plagued the federal government and this fledgling department, to telegraph a message of change to the American people,” the secretary said.


Hispanic leaders who have advocated compulsory bilingual education responded angrily to Bell’s message. “My god!” said Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.).”If this is the first major educational decision of the Reagan administration, then this country is in for absolute disaster.” Ruben Bonilla, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said “this is a very steep price to pay for having given the Republicans the strongest Hispanic vote in history.” Bonilla was referring to Hispanic support for Reagan in the 1980 election.


The Education Department has estimated that there are about 3.5 million children in U.S. elementary and secondary schools who know too little English — the bureaucratic term is “limited-English-proficient children” — to learn arithmetic, geography and other basics. About 70 percent of them are Hispanic.


Most of the school children in this situation were born in the United States. To date, refugees and immigrants have been significant factors in relatively few of the nation’s 16,000 public school districts.


The bilingual education controversy, which has generated thousands of pages of legal and regulatory argument over the past 15 years or so, stems from two words in the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a provision banning discrimination on the basis of “national origin.”


In a 1974 case brought in the name of Kinney Lau, a Chinese-American student in the San Francisco public schools, the Supreme Court said the term “national origin” included language, and thus schools were required to provide equal educational opportunity to students who cannot learn in English. The court specifically declined to say which method schools should use to meet that requirement.


A year later, the federal Office of Education issued an “informal” document called. “The Lau Remedies” which pushed school districts toward the bilingual teaching approach. Hufstedler’s proposed regulations last year carried on the thrust of that document.


Yesterday, Bell called the proposed rules “harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable, and incredibly costly.” He said they would have cost school systems “up to” $1 billion over the next five years.


The secretary said he hopes to issue new regulations by June that will make it clear that his department intends to be “pretty loose” about the methods school systems use in the future to provide equal opportunity to non-English speakers.


Bell also said he would “look again” at the Bilingual Education Act, which provides grants to help local schools meet the goal. At present, grants go mainly to schools that institute native-language programs for basic courses.


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